What is an indie developer?

Apr 18, 2014

What makes a developer "indie"?

I'm not going to answer that question, instead, I'm just going to ask a lot more questions, mostly because I'm irritated and asking questions rather than answering them irritates people and as the saying goes: irritation makes great bedfellows.

What irritates me is this almost "snobbery" that seems to exist in some dev circles about what an "indie" is. I hear devs who call themselves "indie" roll their eyes at other devs who call themselves "indie" because they "clearly they aren't indie".

So what makes an indie developer "indie"?  Let's look at the word.

The word "indie" comes from (I assume) the word "independent".  I guess the first question we have to ask is: independent from what? I think most people would say "publishers".

Yet, I know of several devs who proudly call themselves "indie" when they are taking money from publishers (and big publishers at that) and other devs that would sneer at a dev taking publisher money and calling themselves "indie".

What about taking money from investors? If you take money are you not "indie"? What about money from friends or family? Or does it have to be VCs for you to lose "indie" status?

What about Kickstarter?  I guess it's OK for indies to take money from Kickstarter. But are you really "independent"?  3,000 backers who now feel a sense of entitlement might disagree. Devs who feel an intense sense of pressure from backers might also disagree.

Does being "indie" mean your idea is independent from mainstream thinking? Is being an "indie developer" just the new Punk Rock.

Does the type of game you're making define you as "indie"? If a dev is making a metrics driven F2P game, but they are doing it independent of a publisher, does that mean they are not "indie"?

This is one of the biggest areas I see "indie" snobbery kick in.  Snobby "indie" devs will look at an idea and proclaim it "not indie".

Do "indie" games have to be quirky and weird? Do "indie" games have to be about the "art".

What about the dev? Does that matter? Someone once told me I was not "indie" because I have an established name, despite the fact that the games I'm currently working on have taken no money from investors or publishers and are made by three people.

What if the game is hugely successful and makes a ton of money? Does that make it not "indie" anymore? Is being "indie" about being scrappy and clawing your way from nothing? Once you have success, are you no longer "indie"?  Is it like being an "indie band" where once they gain success, they are looked down on by the fans? Does success mean selling-out? Does selling-out revoke your "indie dev" card?

What if the "indie" developer already has lots of money? Does having millions of dollars make them not "indie"? What if they made the money before they went "indie" or even before they started making games or if they have a rich (dead) aunt? Does "indie" mean you have to starve?

Is it OK for an "indie" to hire top notch marketing and PR people? Or do "indies" have to scrape everything together themselves and use the grassroot network?

Or does "indie" just mean you're not owned by a publisher? How big of a publisher? It's easy to be a publisher these days, most indies who put their games up on Steam are "publishers". The definition of a publisher is that you're publishing the game and the goal of a lot of studios is to "self-publish".

Or does being "indie" just mean you came up with the idea?  The Cave was funded and published by SEGA, so was it an "indie" title? SEGA didn't come up with the idea and exerted no creative control, so does that make it an "indie" title?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions (and maybe there aren't any), but it irritates me that some devs (or fans) look down on devs because they are not "indie" or not "indie enough".

Or is being "indie" just another marketing term? Maybe that's all it means anymore. It's just part of the PR plan.

Wow I love this new blog style!

Ebyan Alvarez-Buylla
The Punk Rock analogy is probably the best fit here, especially since it is so loose and equally up for debate.

The most inclusive way of looking at "indie" gamedev goes something like:

Small team OR self-funded/not backed by a major publisher OR adhering to the established indie aesthetic

While the less inclusive, more snobby definition is something like:

Small team AND self-funded/not backed my a major publisher AND adhering to the established indie aesthetic

As you point out, "small team" or "self-funded/not backed by a major publisher" or "established indie aesthetic" all cover wide spectra of subjectivity and in some sense don't get us any closer to a consensus. However, I will say that the latter of those three resonates more with me as a full-time non-indie, part-time indie, since it tends to be what makes the most difference in how the game feels. Really, "philosophy" is a better term than "aesthetic", because we're not talking entirely (or perhaps at all?) visually, but rather hinting at the more niche/experimental results of having to make due with a small team and no money, an aesthetic that can be to some extent emulated with a larger team and plenty of funding.

Visually, one way I like to think of the gamedev space is as a 2-dimensional spectrum: in one axis you have experimental->established, and on the other you have niche->casual. "Indie" games tend to fall in the experimental/niche quadrant, though some have been known to peek into the casual space. AAA games hover around the established axis, taking care not to become too complex as to teeter too deep into the niche extremes and keeping just the right amount of explosions and gratuitous violence to keep them from becoming casual.

In many ways I am quite pleased that these sorts of arguments are beginning to be had by the wider game playing public much in the same way music has enjoyed the 'what is "punk"' argument for decades. Even if many of us gamedevs are as keen on limiting labels as we are on being harassed over a $2.00 price tag on a mobile game, this sort of snobbery is indicative of a healthy, growing game development culture.

Norman Rafferty
Hipsters aside, I'm going to agree with Ebyan here -- "indie" means "not backed by a major publisher."

The simple way to answer the question is, if THE PRODUCT'S DESIGN DECISIONS answer to anyone else but THE CREATORS AND THE AUDIENCE, then you're no longer indie.

Did you get your budget from a publisher? Not indie.
Do you have stockholders who demand a profit, but who contribute zero content? Not indie.
Does all your money come from crowd-funding? That's indie, because the only two people involved are the creators and the audience. All decisions about the content will be INDEPENDENT of any other sources.

By this definition, Valve Software is an indie publisher. They're privately held, and only they and their audience decide what goes in them.

A great example of NOT-INDIE would be "Assassin's Creed: Unity". Many people were complaining, "Why can't I play a female avatar in this game?" And the answer was, "It's too expensive." In this case, expensive meant that the dev.team would have had to have produced twice as much cash-shop DLC, on the budget handed to them by the publisher.

The AC:U staff replied to the question in a way that showed no INDEPENDENT thought. They had a mandate from their bosses for so much content, they had a budget, and there wasn't room for women in it. There was a glaring lack of self-awareness in their response.

The indie label certainly implies someone's not a sellout... but one only has to browse Kickstarter to find people making steampunk-zombie-retro games. While an artist beholden to no one but a customer is definitely an independent artist... they can also still be a sell-out. Flappy Bird is not some kind of political or artistic statement.

Sure, a sell-out artist is making decisions about content to pander to a large audience, but they can still be an indie sell-out artist. There have to be at least two parties involved here; content has to be appreciated to be considered art.

The fewer people you have to respond to, the more indie you are. The MOST INDIE EVAR game is the game made to please only one person in the universe -- its sole creator. That's great for that one person, but when people think of art, they think of something to say something to an audience. Could be a large audience, could be a niche one, but it's got to have something to say to somebody.

I'm equally irritated by this, as you seem to be. Apply to the music and film industries, for extra irritation.

Indie IMO is trading financial security for creative freedom.

Uli Kusterer
I'd also analyze where the word was first used, which was probably independent movies. These generally match the criteria others have laid down already, with one difference: Indie can be a state that changes over time. So you can be Indie while developing, then find a publisher after you've fronted the costs. Happens with lots of movies, and is sort of like a startup in that way.

Jose Vazquez
Goodness, I love your blog theme. It brings back so many memories.

I agree so much with you that I gave a talk at SecondConf several years ago exploring much the same thing. In the end, I came up with a definition for an indie that works at least for me.

I defined an indie as:
A person willing to do whatever it takes to follow their dreams in their own terms.

Reading it now, I realize it probably should have been "person or group of people" oh well...

I feel indies are best defined by what drives them, their passion. If your goal it to make money, perhaps you're more of an entrepreneur? But yeah, if you're trying to make that thing in your head a reality, having a day job, taking VC money, partnering up, etc. are just things you are willing to do to make it happen.

To me, indie means independent from presupost, independent from the fears that most of the big companyies have: the need of making money. The need lf paying salaries.

There are hese developers that have no fear of trying something new, different, those small developers that can take risks.

These developers that can do as past game developers. Be small to be innomative

ALL snobbery is irritating - period!  And so is labeling.  All the time wasted on evaluating/judging/criticizing is just to soothe a shaky ego, it has no other constructive purpose.  Imagine if they could focus that energy on more positive, creative endeavors!  

Don't let them bring you down.  Just be YOU - and leave the labels for processed, mass produced products that are stamped with a bar code and a price tag and the empty headed fools who are tripping over each other to get (to be?) the "best" one.

Sit back, observe and chuckle.  Then go DO all the things that you do so well.


I used to think I knew back in 2004, but maybe I just care less now about all the "indie" throw-down hubbub.